"Well, gentlemen, you don't look like you were just through one of the greatest naval conflicts on record."
- Asst. Navy Secretary Gustavus Fox, greeting the Monitor's powder- blackened crew just after its historic battle
Hampton Roads, those who had watched the battle between the Monitor and the Virginia were astounded.
For roughly four hours, what some people had come to regard as two of the world's most powerful ships had slugged it out. Yet each could be seen steaming away from the thunderous clash practically undamaged.
Looking on from the surrounding vessels, many officers and men recognized at once that they had witnessed something historic. They knew no mere wooden warship - even one with a 24-inch-thick oak hull - could have survived such a prolonged and ferocious pounding.
"The lack of bloodshed was the most remarkable thing about the battle," says historian John M. Coski of The Museum of the Confederacy.
"With four hours total - and almost an hour of that in virtual touching range - the damage should have been catastrophic. Two wooden ships fighting in that kind of proximity for that duration would have meant a bloodbath."
Even the European observers, who held the American navies in low esteem, knew that the confrontation signaled the end of an era. The British, in particular, assessed the performance of the armored ships in dramatic terms, prompting the Admiralty to halt construction on wooden vessels.
In a single stroke, the world's largest and most advanced navy had been upstaged by the innovative tinkerings of two second-rate military powers.
"Whereas we had available for immediate purposes 149 first-class war-ships, we now have two," the Times of London lamented, "these being the Warrior and her sister, Ironside."
On board the Monitor, the first order of business was fresh air rather than historical assessment. Yet the mantle of fame fell over the ship as soon as the shooting ended.
In less than 24 hours, the shocking threat of Confederate naval supremacy had been matched if not beaten. The panic of the previous day changed to jubilation.
Within minutes, Assistant Navy Secretary Gustavus Fox steamed over to congratulate the powder-blackened crew, becoming the first in a long line of dignitaries to visit the vessel. But not before Paymaster William F. Keeler scrambled on deck, hunting for Confederate shell fragments to keep as souvenirs.
Later, when the ironclad shifted its anchorage, the sailors in the Union fleet clambered into the rigging and cheered the ship they had ridiculed the night before.
"The people ashore around Fortress Monroe cannot say enough in our praise and they will take no money for anything we send for," Second Assistant Engineer Albert. B. Campbell reported the day after the battle.
"...if the Merrimac [sic] had not been stopped by us, all our fleet had orders to sail, for they would all have been destroyed [by the Virginia] if they had stayed."
Still, the North's relief faded quickly in the face of the continuing threat posed by the Confederate marauder. For the rest of March and into April, the Monitor and the Federal fleet waited for the Virginia to reappear. But the two foes never met again in battle.
President Lincoln and Navy Secretary Gideon Welles, who believed only the Monitor could prevent a disastrous attack on the Union's coastal cities, insisted that the ship "be not too much exposed." Alarmed by a bedside warning from the ironclad's injured captain, Lt. John L. Worden, the president feared that the vessel might be boarded and captured.
Indeed, the Confederates recognized this weakness, and they planned to blind the Monitor by throwing a cover over its pilothouse. They also anticipated the Union's intention to lure the Virginia into the waters near Fort Monroe, where the ironclad would face a special flotilla of rams and the army's huge coastal guns.
Part 4 of 5